The Talk of the Town section of the June 4 New Yorker contains a piece called "Your Name Here," in which Lauren Collins relates the tale of one Barnaby Harris.
Harris struck T-shirt gold in 2001, when he came up with the slogan "Fuck Yoga." It took a while to come up with a worthy follow-up, Collins writes, but Harris did. The magic words?
"Fuck Frank Gehry."
You might know Gehry as the icon of postmodern architecture who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis.
I know Gehry as the spoilsport who sicced his general counsel, J. David Bournazian, on me last October, after we piggybacked our pie-in-the-sky Ballpark Village satire on Gehry's notoriety.
According to our story, which carried Randall Roberts' byline, the crater that persists where the old Busch Stadium stood would not be turned into a shlocky tourist trap as St. Louisans had previously been led to believe. Rather, thanks to the intervention of local philanthropist Emily Pulitzer, the twelve-acre site was to be transformed into a mecca for art and culture, designed by a marquee architect.
"Erstwhile media magnate Emily Rauh Pulitzer has entered into an agreement with the St. Louis Cardinals to develop the downtown site known as Ballpark Village, Riverfront Times has learned..." Roberts' story began. "World-renowned architect Frank O. Gehry has signed on to design the project. Estimated price tag: $765 million."
The "facts" of the story were based on our own architectural renderings and fictional e-mails. It was populated by flesh-and-blood human beings, but everything behind the façade was pure fantasy: the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis moving downtown along with the Stanley Elkin Archives, a Richard Serra sculpture garden and the Kiel Opera House. (The Opera House was to make a grand entrance, "unhitched from its Market Street foundation, towed one-half mile east and re-anchored across the street from Mike Shannon's Steaks and Seafood.")
The day the story went live on riverfronttimes.com, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Jake Wagman called. After apologizing for having to ask "a stupid question" (he blamed his editor, naturally), Wagman asked if our story was true.
We made it up, I told him. Funny, I said, we've barely even started distributing the print version around town and the cat's out of the bag.
You think you've got it bad, Wagman shot back. I get to call and try to get a comment from Emily Pulitzer.
The next day I got a telephone call from J. David Bournazian, general counsel for Gehry's Los Angeles-based company.
We'd published a story that wasn't true, Bournazian said. If the attorney sounded peeved (and he did), that was nothing compared to the mood of his boss, who was, Bournazian informed me, hopping mad.
Through Bournazian, Gehry was demanding a retraction.
I hooked Bournazian up with our corporate attorney, so the two of them could talk about whatever it is that attorneys talk about. I also posted a note online alerting readers that the Ballpark Village story was satire. We published a similar note on the Letters page of our next issue.
And that was that. Sort of.
Our Ballpark Village package contained three elements. One was the newsy story by Randy Roberts. Story element number two was entitled "Frank Gehry's Ballpark Village: An Appreciation." This was an encomium penned by Robert Duffy, who had recently joined RFT as the paper's visual arts and architecture writer. His imprimatur brought another layer of verisimilitude to the project, seeing as how he'd put in three decades-plus at Pulitzer Inc.'s Post-Dispatch before taking a buyout when the company was acquired by Davenport, Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, Inc. (He also was a student of my father at Washington University many years ago. After my mother died in 1996, he wrote the obituary that appeared in the Post. I consider Bob a personal friend.)
Duffy based his assessment on a series of abominable renderings we'd commissioned from a local architect made all the more hideous because (at Duffy's urging) we'd changed course midstream to make Gehry the purported architect, rather than our initial choice, the eccentric Daniel Libeskind. The RFT's newly minted arts writer extolled the design's fishlike form and hailed the fictional Gehry plan as "bold, courageous and eager to involve itself in the city with dynamism and good humor."
The day after the story appeared, Duffy checked in via e-mail to say it looked "great" and to ask how it was being received. But between that evening and the next, he had a change of heart. Friday night he wrote again, this time to say:
"Having my name associated with the hoax is likely to damage the reputation I've built as a reliable, serious journalist over a long career. As you'll remember, I expressed discomfort to you about participating in the Baseball Village project, particularly in regard to having my byline on the sidebar.
"Therefore, please accept this e-mail as my formal and immediate conclusion to my association with the RFT."
I thought he was joking. He wasn't.
These days, of course, Duffy is busy preparing to launch Platform, an online-only local news publication that's being put together by former Post-Dispatch writers and editors. He says they're working on bankrolling the project. The name Emily Pulitzer comes to mind, but Duffy says rumors to that effect aren't true, and that she hasn't been asked.
On the topic of Web sites, the third element that made up our Ballpark Village story was www.ballparkvillage.com. Like the e-mails and the architectural drawings (both of which were posted there), it contributed an element of realism.
Being able to flaunt a domain name was something of a fluke. About seven years ago, when the owners of the St. Louis Cardinals ownership began floating the notion of a "Ballpark Village" to augment a new stadium, Randy Roberts had snapped up ballparkvillage.com for a nominal registration fee. (How better to gauge whether Bill DeWitt et al. were serious about following through on their promise to redevelop the downtown acreage?) For our story we brought the dormant site to life on the Internet, throwing in a "secret" username (ERPULITZ06) and password (SAYITAINTSO). Besides being absurd, those touches were intended to divert attention from the fact that aside from the crappy artist's renderings, we had zero tangible pizzazz to offer.
But we did have that URL and still do. More precisely, Randy Roberts does. And guess what? The Cardinals want it.
Cordish Co., the Baltimore-based "urban makeover" specialist that's partnering with the team to develop the real Ballpark Village, contacted Roberts in December, inquiring whether he'd entertain offers for the domain name. Not long after that, DeWitt himself called. Now his lawyers are talking to Randy's lawyer.
Now back to another lawyer, J. David Bournazian.
Publicly owning up to our fictional creation didn't satisfy Mr. Gehry, who took time out of his busy architecting schedule to instruct J. David Bournazian to demand that Riverfront Times and our parent company make financial amends, in the form of a charitable donation.
That could be arranged, our lawyer told their lawyer. How much was Mr. Gehry thinking? Would, say, $1,000 to the United Way smooth things over?
Not quite, said J. David Bournazian.
How much, then?
The number Mr. Gehry mentioned was five million dollars, said J. David Bournazian.
At which point Village Voice Media Holding, LLC bid Gehry Partners, LLP a polite goodbye.
We haven't heard from them since.
If I learned anything about Frank Gehry from that experience, it was this:
The fucker can't take a joke.
But strike that. Evidently he can take a joke. The New Yorker's Lauren Collins says so, and Gehry agrees. Writes Collins: "It was suggested to Gehry, who once had a cameo on The Simpsons, that for a high-powered architect he had an unusual ability to take a joke. 'Yeah,' he said, 'because as I've gotten to be pretty well known there's a lot of negative stuff written, right? People potshot at you. So I sort of ignore it....'"
In fact, as Collins tells it, Gehry is buying "Fuck Frank Gehry" T-shirts by the wheelbarrowful and handing them out to his friends and minions, thus sending forth into the world a cadre of walking billboards for Barnaby Harris' T-shirt business.
Harris himself reports that he made his first Gehry shirt about three years ago, and that they were selling pretty well before their namesake got wind of them. "We never promoted it at all," the entrepreneur says by phone from New York. "We had a retail store with a big sign in front that said 'Fuck Yoga,' so that got a lot of attention. When the store got a little publicity and the 'Fuck Yoga' T-shirt started to get around a little bit, somebody had made mention that there was also a 'Fuck Frank Gehry' shirt, and people came in to get it." Post-New Yorker, sales are brisk, with orders coming in from as far away as Japan, Brazil, Poland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
Harris says he has never spoken to Gehry, only heard secondhand of the architect's affinity for his creation. "He thought it was pretty funny, and also endearing," Harris says. "The other thing about it is, he's not a fool, clearly. And it beats his critics to the punch, you know if he's wearing it before they are, then he wins."
What the hell, I just went to www. itsasickness.com and ordered two "Fuck Frank Gehry" T's: one for Randy Roberts and one for Bob Duffy. I figure J. David Bournazian already has one.
In case anyone's wondering, I take a size XL.
I like 'em roomy.